Shaw: What’s next for homeless people after the storms?
Geraldo Garcia and Graciela Haio collect their belongings amid flood threats as they scramble to find shelter. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    The atmospheric rivers that slammed California for the past few weeks once again show how vulnerable homeless people are to the weather.

    High winds, flooding, rain and an evacuation order forced people to seek out safety from the elements, quickly filling Red Cross evacuation sites in San Jose. The storms highlight the type of services that aren’t being provided to homeless individuals when it comes to their mental health.

    After years of ignoring this problem and trying to make the situation worse by funding a half a billion-dollar jail project, Santa Clara County has finally pivoted in the right direction. While the amount of mental health funding recently approved by the county—more than $20 million—pales in comparison to the constantly changing budget for a new jail, it’s a start. And after the trauma and uncertainty brought about through these weather conditions, it may be right on time.

    The evacuation centers run by the Red Cross are a godsend. They cater to families and individuals and provide shelter, showers, food, laundry and a place for pets. The admittance process is streamlined, and there are opportunities for homeless families and individuals to obtain needs assessments and talk to caseworkers.

    But as I mentioned, the evacuation centers also come with uncertainty and trauma. People had limited time to collect items and evacuate once the evacuation order went into effect earlier this month. The number of personal items allowed in the centers is limited to what an individual can fit under the cot they are assigned. This is an obstacle for many people, especially those who have been on the streets for years with established encampment communities. Everything valuable they own is in a tent or other makeshift shelter, and telling them the majority of it must be left behind with little chance of recovery is unimaginable—like someone’s home being wiped away in a mudslide or burned to the ground in a wildfire.

    I did outreach in the flood zone at Corie Court by the Coyote Creek Trail about 10 days ago, in an attempt to get individuals to leave the area and go to an evacuation center. This was right before the second big storm of the year, and water had receded from overflowing the banks.

    There were people who thought they would be safe since they had moved to higher ground away from the creek, even though they still remained in the path of runoff water from higher elevations. Based on the clearly visible water lines I was able to see how far out and how high up the water reached to cars and makeshift shelters. It was frightening, but people still didn’t want to leave behind everything, even though they knew the risk.

    I didn’t convince anyone to go to the evacuation center that day, but I watched with admiration as an advocate named Lisa worked her magic. Even though she has a disability, she still drove her small SUV through the mud and walked around the encampment, striking up easy conversations while sharing cigarettes, offering rides to anyone who wanted to go to the evacuation center.

    I remember an older, partially blind gentleman who was living in a structure built mostly from foam board crying because he had personal items he was leaving behind. Lisa came back for him after taking a young lady to the center, so he could have some time to think and absorb the reality of what he had to do. Getting two reluctant individuals to trust you and let you drive them somewhere where they will be safe is magic. She even bought Burger King for them. There are many, many advocates and volunteers who have done the same thing during this disaster.

    With the storms behind us, for now, it’s time to make people whole. The evacuation centers were set to close earlier this week, and that date has been extended by a week or so. But what solution or remedy does San Jose or Santa Clara County have for homeless individuals who have lost almost everything they own? Where are they supposed to go after the full evacuation centers close, since all the shelters are full? Hopefully not just back to the streets with less than they had before the storms.

    If the municipalities are going to send homeless people from evacuation centers back to the streets, then they should at least make sure they have something to start with. Things like tents, tarps, sleeping bags, headlamps, laterns, cell phone chargers, jackets, clothing, blankets, hygiene kits, water and food. Sending people back to areas where evacuation was mandatory and not providing a viable option for them to stay, or a way to make them whole, is shameful. People should be provided a starter kit at minimum with the aforementioned items. But also, a lump sum gift card to help reestablish their losses, caseworkers, medical care and mental health services.

    Some reimbursement process should be established for evacuees, in addition to grassroots advocates and volunteers who were on the front lines saving lives. This evacuation will have effects that ripple into the future that no one can predict. Federal and state funds for disaster relief should benefit those affected by the disaster and those who risked their own health and safety to provide outreach.

    Just as it was at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, grassroots advocates and volunteers, rather than traditional nonprofits, continue to be a critical component to the health and safety of those living on the streets. Hopefully local governments will feel some sort of duty to show appreciated recognition of these efforts.

    Jerome Shaw is an unhoused advocate for the homeless and previously lived at a HomeFirst shelter in Sunnyvale. He’s part of a group of homeless columnists writing for San José Spotlight’s In Your Backyard column to shine a light on the homeless experience in Silicon Valley. Contact Jerome at j[email protected]

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